To Drive or Not to Drive — in Mexico

VW bus in Mexico

A big question for many Americans and Canadians contemplating a move to Mexico is what to do with your car. Your options include selling your vehicle(s), storing it someplace, or keeping it and driving it down for use in your new life here in Mexico.

In this post, I’ll discuss the rules for driving a foreign-plated car in Mexico, examine the pros and cons of having a car here, and share some personal experiences to give you a taste of what to expect (since this is what most websites leave out).

NOTE: This post does not address the so-called FREE ZONES of Baja California, Sonora or the 25 km border area, where it’s easy to drive a U.S. plated vehicle without much trouble, as long as you stay out of cartel conflict zones.

Once you start digging into how to bring your car here legally, you quickly realize that it’s an incredibly complex topic. When planning our move, it consumed far more of my time than I’d have ever thought possible. Let’s take a quick look at how it works …

 

What You Need to Drive a Foreign-Plated Car Legally in Mexico

     

      1. Temporary Import Permit, purchased before crossing the border into Mexico, from Banjercito.

      1. Mexican auto insurance because U.S. policies are not valid in Mexico.

      1. Valid U.S. auto registration.

      1. The type of residency visa that enables your to temporarily import a car.

     

    Things you don’t need to drive legally in Mexico

       

        1. A Mexican driver’s license. (U.S. and Canadian licenses are valid in Mexico)

        1. U.S. auto insurance.

       

      The Temporary Import Permit (TIP) can only be purchased outside of Mexico from Banjercito (available at various border locations, some Mexican Consulates in the U.S., and online). It is a legal document that allows foreign cars to be driven in Mexico for a fixed period of time.

      Getting a TIP is not a path to permanently importing your car into Mexico. This is a separate process that requires exporting your car and then re-importing it using a Customs broker. It’s both expensive and time-consuming, and frankly not worth the trouble so it’s not something I’d ever recommend.

      Driving in Mexico without a TIP outside of the Free Zones is serious violation. Your car can be confiscated if you get stopped by the police. In addition, driving on an expired TIP can result in a fine, loss of your deposit, and a ban on ever getting another TIP. Don’t get caught in these situations; follow the steps to drive here legally.

      Mexican auto insurance can be purchased quickly and affordably online. This was one of the few pleasant surprises in this process! Some of the big providers are GNP Seguros and ABA Seguros. And if you just curious want to do a query of how much it would cost to bring your car, this quote page from broker Bill Bell provides the answer.

      Simply Googling “Mexican auto insurance” will also turn up lots of options. If buying a policy with decent accident coverage (a wise move here) you can expect to pay between $350-$400 per year for a policy. In our case it’s about 75% less than what we were paying annually north of the border!

      While having valid U.S. registration for your car is a given when you first arrive, it gets more complicated to maintain over time. Most U.S. states require emissions testing as part of the registration renewal process. So imagine having to drive your car from Guadalajara back to your home state in order to get it done and receive your new stickers. No thanks!

      This dilemma prompts many expats to shift their registration to states where emissions testing is not a requirement. There aren’t too many — and explains why there are so many cars in expat-heavy zones with plates from South Dakota. There is actually a mini-cottage industry now helping expats get auto registration from South Dakota, to avoid the hassle of driving your car back north at renewal time. Check the FB group On The Road Mexico for more info.

      You must ensure that your residency visa is compatible with a TIP. If you are moving to Mexico for an extended period as a foreigner, the only option is to import your car on a Residente Temporal visa. Under this scenario you can keep your car here legally as long as your temporary resident visa is legal, i.e. for a maximum of 4 years.

      You are prohibited from bringing a foreign-plated car into Mexico on a Residente Permanente visa, except in the Free Zones. This means that you must make a decision about what you plan to do with your car in parallel with your decision about which type of residency visa to apply for, to ensure those decisions are compatible.

      Tourists can also drive foreign plated cars in Mexico on a TIP for a maximum of 180 days. This option cannot be extended or renewed. Both temporary residents and tourists with TIPs must drive their cars out of Mexico before the permit expires.

      red Volvo in mexico

       

      Rules aside, is it worth bringing your car to Mexico? And … what’s it really like to drive here?

      Below is a list of pros and cons I’ve compiled based on my experience of living and driving in Guadalajara over the past 15 months.

      Pros

      1. Having your own car is almost essential if you’re bringing pets. Ubers generally won’t take passengers with animals, and many buses won’t allow animals either. While you can fly down with your animals, having your own car once you get here is going to make it much easier for you all to get around.

      2. The flexibility to go where you want, when you want. For that spontaneous getaway to the coast, or just an unplanned afternoon hike at Barranca de Huentitan — having your own wheels makes things super convenient. The same goes for a pantry restocking trips to Costco or Mercado de Abastos — logistics are simpler if you’re hauling a bunch of stuff.

      3. It helps with your move. When we moved I had a few small valuables that could never be entrusted to a moving company or FedEx, and could not easily clear TSA screenings. Driving them down in a private vehicle was infinitely more secure. And even if you don’t plan to bring anything too sensitive, compared to flying you can bring down a lot more stuff in a private car, which alleviates the need for a big shopping trip on arrival, when you probably have no idea where to look for what you need anyway.

      old Mini Cooper

      4. It can be extremely useful in emergencies. When my husband had a medical emergency last September at 4 AM on a Sunday morning, I shudder to think what we would have done if we hadn’t had our car to rush to the emergency room. Could we even get an Uber at zero dark thirty? Sometimes, one event crystalizes the value of being mobile and self-sufficient.

      5. Mexican auto insurance is cheap. Our current policy with ABA Seguros provides decent coverage for one-quarter of what we used to spend in the U.S. Total time to buy online? About 15 minutes.

      6. Toll highways (autopistas) are lightly travelled, safe, and generally in excellent condition.

      Cons

      1. The Temporary Import Permit (TIP) process is Kafkaesque. After obtaining a TIP at border crossing and securing a temporary visa at INM, the car is legal but the paperwork will never match, even if you make a special trip to the customs office (Aduana) for that purpose. We tried getting updated TIP paperwork at Guadalajara’s only Aduana out at the airport, which is hard to find and perpetually jammed with 18 wheelers. They told us papers get processed in Mexico City and that we’d receive new ones via email. It’s been 11 months since that visit and we’ve never gotten anything from Aduana — and based on what I’ve learned from other expats here, our experience is not unusual.

      2. Getting your deposit back from Banjercito is unlikely. In addition to the cost of the TIP you must also pay a deposit to Banjercito that’s based on your car’s value (plan on at least $350 USD) that you are unlikely to get back, even if you do everything right when surrendering your TIP at the border prior to expiration. Occasionally I hear of an expat who got theirs back, but it’s the exception.

      3. You will get pulled over repeatedly by local cops who have made a side hustle out of shaking down drivers of foreign-plated cars. In our first year in Guadalajara, my husband and I were stopped at least seven times, most often in Providencia neiborhood, where a lot of wealthy expats live. The cops will tell you that the reason you’re being stopped is to verify that your car is here legally.

      Sometimes they question the legitimacy of your documents because the TIP paperwork and your residency visa expiration dates don’t match, as described above. Others threaten to fine you for doing things that most Mexican drivers also do — like using a personalized plate holder. In truth, we put a fancy plate holder (available at any AutoZone here) over our back plate to make it harder for the cops to see which state our plate is from, and it has cut down on the frequency of these stops.

      prickly cactus

      As a rule, the cops have no idea how the TIP process works and are not too interested in learning about it either. They are counting on foreign drivers to be in a hurry or to get stressed out, and offer them a mordida (bribe) to let the matter go.

      Coming through these encounters unscathed requires a level head, Spanish proficiency, and strong spine. I’ll admit to paying a bribe the first time I was pulled over while driving alone in Guadalajara and totally unprepared for it.

      Since that episode, we’ve always kept all essential paperwork in the glovebox and are ready to present it. Despite being pulled over six more times, we’ve never gotten a ticket. That said, being stopped by the police for “driving while foreign” remains an ever-present threat as long as we keep a U.S. plated car here.

      4. Maintaining U.S. Auto Registration can be a hassle on account of emissions tests that virtually all states mandate annually. We’re fortunate in that we keep our residency in a county in Tennessee that does not require annual emissions testing. But we still need relatives to pass us the stickers to us, which is a logistical pain.

      5. Local roads in Mexico are generally a disaster. When not on toll roads (which is most of the time) driving in Mexico can feel like an off-road experience. The speed bumps (topes) are more like speed hills. Unfilled potholes are big enough to break an axle. Roughly patched roads and cobblestone surfaces will do a number on your suspension and tires.

      If you have a high maintenance or low riding car, bringing it to Mexico could be a death sentence. A jeep or SUV makes a lot more sense as they’re far better equipped to handle the rough conditions and ubiquitous topes. Outside of the most expensive neighborhoods in Zapopan, road maintenance is not really a “thing” here.

      dirt road

      Regardless of what you drive, running over glass, nails and myriad other foreign objects on Mexico’s roads is bound to happen. You must plan on getting a flat tire, as it will probably happen at an inopportune time. I discovered that our Ford had a flat tire the morning of my parents’ arrival in Guadalajara. Getting it repaired before their flight landed did not make for a fun morning.

      6. Gas is more expensive in Mexico. Here in Guadalajara we pay the equivalent of $5 USD per gallon. Despite being a major oil producing (and exporting) country, the relatively higher price of gas in Mexico is due in part to the lack of refining capacity. Most Mexican oil must be exported for refining, and then re-imported as consumption-ready gasoline.

      7. Toll roads are expensive in Mexico. To a greater extent than in the U.S., drivers on toll roads here shoulder a large burden for their cost. In the local media, much has been made of the astronomical cost of the brand new toll road from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, which costs each car the equivalent of ~ $100 USD round-trip, and is all of 4 hours each way.

      8. Getting into an accident in Mexico is a big deal because property damage is considered a criminal offense, and there’s risk of doing jail time if things aren’t handled properly. (We’ll dive into this topic in more detail in an upcoming post)

       

      Conclusion

      There is a valid case to be made for bringing your car down to Mexico — or leaving it up north. To a large extent, the right decision depends on your lifestyle, ultimate destination, and appetite for risk.

      For an exhaustive review of how to bring your car to Mexico legally, I highly recommend reading this post on Mexperience, as it’s the best resource I’ve found on the topic.

      About Live Well Mexico

      My name is Dawn Stoner. In 2022, my family sold our house and half of our possessions, then relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico. We now live here full-time.

      Since then, we’ve learned how to navigate the real estate market, deal with the Mexican bureaucracy, and manage our finances as expats… all while having a pretty fine time!

      I created this blog to help newcomers solve the everyday challenges of living in Mexico, because it isn’t easy figuring all this out for yourself.

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